Montreal: A taste of France... in Canada
Are a middle-class, middle-aged mother and her teenage daughter in truth an effective cover for a pair of international terrorists?
The suspicious immigration officer certainly made us feel we were. Happily, in a week of meeting dozens of Canadians, she was the only one who struck an unwelcoming note. And her chilly reception was more than offset by the smiling chauffeur and swish stretch limo that awaited us outside Montreal airport.
I was treating my younger daughter Julia to a post-Junior Cert trip to Canada. Of this vast country (largest in the world after Russia), we could only sample two of its 10 provinces, specifically Quebec and Ontario. Quebec's glamorous metropolis, Montreal, known as Canada's cultural capital, was our first stop. We were staying in Le Centre Sheraton, on the 36th floor with panoramic views of this urban island: Montreal is bordered by the Saint Lawrence and Ottawa rivers.
We were centrally located downtown (Canadians love their uptowns and downtowns) round the corner from St Catherine Street, the main shopping drag. Despite humidity and jet lag, Julia road-tested my Amex card with aplomb in American Eagle and Sephora before we headed off for an early dinner in Beaver Hall, an upmarket steak-and-chips bistro favoured by locals.
The city is dominated by the green peaks of Mount Royal Park (after which the city gets its name), and we stroll through this Canadian version of New York's Central Park: they share the same architect -- Frederick Law Olmstead. Multicultural Montreal comprises myriad neighbourhoods -- where the Polish and Irish share a church, where the Jewish bakery serves the best bagels, where Westmount, the English milieu, boasts the most expensive homes and where, delightfully (for this Francophone, anyway), everyone speaks French.
Down the alleyways between rows of houses, families enjoy suburban lives in this urban space. It is quiet mid-morning; later it will ring with sounds of children playing and dads barbecuing. Then there's the gay neighbourhood, the old town and the art area -- which is very vibrant, with an average of 20 concerts, plays, dance pieces every night of the year
We end our tour in Vieux Montreal, at Pointe-a-Calliere, the city's museum of archaeology and history. This is the actual spot on which Ville-Marie (as it was once known) was founded and the original stones are part of the museum's foundations.
The Saint Lawrence Iroquoians were the first settlers, but it was the French explorer Samuel de Champlain who put down roots and started the lucrative fur trade.
A family-friendly multi-media show tells the city's story from the arrival of those Amerindians, then the French and British regimes, through various wars and depressions to the present day.
Families will also enjoy a trip to the Biodome (beside the Olympic stadium), where they can experience the flora and fauna of five ecosystems -- from tropical rain forest to the sub-polar regions -- of the Americas. We eat at iBurger -- each table has its own giant touch screen with menus on which to place your order. A burger joint by any other name, and yet an aptly hip way to complete our brief intro to this cool cosmopolis.
Our next stop was Quebec city, and it's quaint or twee, depending on your perspective. Certainly it's very beautiful and was named a Unesco world heritage site in 1985. It is dotted with imposingly lovely sights -- the ancient city walls, the enormous and stunning Chateau Frontenac, a basilica rich with gold leaf -- and their park, the Plains of Abraham, once the site of a fateful battle in 1759 between the British and French, now a popular locale for picnics and rock concerts.
Quebec, too, has its upper town and lower town, linked by a funicular as well as the suitably named 'Breakneck Stairs'. It's all very charming, but touristy and a bit pricey -- for the two of us pizza, pasta, mineral water and a glass of wine came to more than $75 (€60).
A bridge links the city to the Ile d'Orleans, and we do a short circuit of this island known as 'a place of quiet things'. I was reminded a bit of the Hamptons; this is a bucolic getaway with delectable waterfront properties (known amusingly as cottages) for wealthy Quebecois. Along the way, we stop at an apple farm and sample their local specialities: delicious apple butter and chilled cider.
We're up early the next morning to go to Parc de la Chute-Montmorency -- essentially a railway station beside a beautiful waterfall -- the starting point for our tour of the enormous ski terrain: Le Massif de Charlevoix. An immaculately appointed loft-style train takes us through exquisite scenery nestling between the St Lawrence and the mountains.
This is the brainchild of Daniel Gautheir, co-founder and the commercial brains behind Cirque du Soleil, and he has pumped a huge amount of money into the area, especially into the Hotel la Ferme, a newly built hotel aimed at skiers. They're proud of the concept: you can rent a bed (there are four to a room) for $45 a night. This modern monolith contrasts greatly with the sweet little town of Baie Saint-Paul, with its dinky craft shops, quirky galleries and genteel guesthouses. On a sunny July day, this is a beautiful area, but I suspect that it is in winter that it really comes into its own -- covered in a tablecloth of snow and ice, it must be breathtaking.
Our introduction to French Canada, once known as New France, has been enriching and exhilarating, but we must say adieu to Quebec. Next stop, Ontario.
Fly direct to Montreal from Dublin with Canadian Affair on Air Transat (www.canadianaffair.ie;
www.airtransat.ie) flights operated on Airbus A330/A310 aircraft start at €499 rtn inc tax.
A 7-night holiday to Montreal & Quebec starts from €1499pp including rtn economy flights, 7 nights hotel (Toronto, Montreal, Quebec City), VIA rail train journey Montreal- Quebec City and internal flight from Quebec City to Montreal Airport. Travel selected dates Sept/Oct 2012
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